Saturday, July 27, 2019

More Villa-Lobos by Josef Breitenbach

Earlier I posted a portrait of Villa-Lobos by the German-American photographer Josef Breitenbach, from 1957. There are also a series of photographs from a session in 1959. As usual the composer is open and interactive. The photographer has picked up on the special bond between Villa & Mindinha.

1959 was, of course, the year of Villa-Lobos's death, and some pictures from then show him tired or in pain. There's a certain amount of that here, but also great dignity. This is a portrait of a serious man, and a genius.

Heitor Villa-Lobos by Josef Breitenbach, 1959. Direct and clear-eyed, with, and without, the famous cigar.

These photos are from The Josef and Yaye Breitenbach Charitable Foundation at The Center for Creative Photography.

Villa-Lobos by Josef Breitenbach

Here's a portrait of Heitor Villa-Lobos that I don't think I've seen before. It's from New York in 1957; the photographer is Josef Breitenbach. I wonder which score the composer is working on. His published works that year included mostly chamber music, but 1958 saw important orchestral and operatic works: Forest of the Amazon and A Menina das Nuvens. What a cool pen he uses to write his music!

From The Josef and Yaye Breitenbach Charitable Foundation, via The Center For Creative Photography.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Strong Villa-Lobos guitar, and a great modernist chamber work

Villa-Lobos: Preludes & Etudes for Solo Guitar; Sextuor Mystique

I've always thought of Urania as a re-mastering and re-packaging company, and over the years I've enjoyed a number of their historic reissues (most recently, a fine album of Paul Hindemith conducting his own music). But they also do a lot of original recording in Italy, and there are many such discs to explore on their website. One that naturally caught my eye was this all-Villa-Lobos disc from guitarist Andrea Monarda. His version of Villa's Preludes and Etudes for Solo Guitar goes into the very, very long queue of recordings of these works. Popular works that fit nicely on a single LP or CD have a tendency to multiply. I'd rate Monarda a bit above the middle of this crowded pack, he delivers a lively performance that's especially well recorded. I often find that a particular guitarist will be stronger in one group or the other ("the classical guitar world is divided into two types of musicians..."), and Monarda, I think, is much more successful in the Etudes. A couple of the Preludes are perhaps a bit under-characterized, when compared with outstanding versions by Norbert Kraft or Timo Korhonen. But Monarda impressed me with the drama of the 1st and 12th Etudes, and the saudade of the 5th and 11th.

However, it's the title work which sets apart this album: the remarkable Sextuor Mystique (aka Sexteto Mistico), nominally written in 1917, though the score was lost and Villa-Lobos re-wrote it from memory decades later. The musicologist Lisa Peppercorn believes it was actually written during the 1920s, Villa's modernist period that includes some of his greatest music; I would tend to agree. Monarda has put together an ensemble named for the work, though it's unlikely the Sextuor Mystique Ensemble will be able to find anything else written for just this combination of instruments: guitar, flute, oboe, harp, saxophone and celesta. The SME do a marvellous job in this case, highlighting its Paris/Rio split personality.

The two decades before and after the Millennium were a golden age of Villa-Lobos recordings. The great composer's reputation was rising after its inevitable decline following his death in 1959, and his Centennial in 1987 primed the pump for a strong comeback. Soon there were multiple new discs released every month. Lately, though, there have been fewer and fewer new releases, with the notable exception of the recently completed Complete Symphonies series from Naxos. It's encouraging, then, to see this new project from Italy. I hope it's the sign of more Villa-Lobos activity to come.

This review was also posted at Music for Several Instruments.